With less than a weeks to go until their entire roster is scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s undrafted rookie class.
Name: Will Hastings
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 24
Size: 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)
What is his experience? After gaining 2,040 receiving yards during his high school senior campaign in 2014, Hastings decided to join Auburn University as a walk-on kicker. After seeing action in just two games as a true freshman and attempting one 29-yard kickoff, he found more success in his second year in the system and quickly carved out a role as a rotational receiver: Hastings caught 37 passes for 623 yards and five touchdowns between 2016 and 2017 — the latter alongside future Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
In the spring of 2018, Hastings’ college career took a turn for the worse when he tore his ACL and had to undergo surgery. While he was back on the field less than six months later, he suffered another ACL tear and was eventually forced to sit out the remainder of his senior season. He did return in 2019, but Hastings failed to return to his previous levels of production. As a result, he entered the NFL draft as a virtual afterthought and did not hear his name called until the Patriots picked him up as a free agent.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off two ACL injuries suffered within a few months of each other, Hastings was granted eligibility for another year — one that began with him earning his bachelor’s degree in May and ended after he had appeared in all 13 of the Tigers’ games. But while he did finish the season as the team’s fourth receiver in most major statistical categories, Hastings was unable to return to the form that made him one of Jarrett Stidham’s favorite pass catchers just two years earlier.
All in all, the fifth-year man caught 19 passes in 2019 for a combined 222 yards and one touchdown. The raw numbers per se were okay, but Hastings saw his role change compared to how he was used pre-injury and while playing with Stidham: back in 2017, he averaged 20.2 yards per receptions compared to just 11.7 as a redshirt senior. While he did show some natural instincts and feel for zone coverage, Hastings’ trademark quickness seemed to have been impacted by his back-to-back knee surgeries.
As a result, he headed into the draft process with little momentum on his side. Him going undrafted was therefore no surprise.
What is his projected role? While Hastings was a viable deep threat for the Tigers during his lone full season catching passes from Jarrett Stidham in 2017, he appears to be best suited to attack the underneath parts of the field at the next level. If he is able to return to form after two challenging seasons and regain his tremendous quickness and short-area moving skills, Hastings could therefore carve out a role as a slot or Z-receiver within the Patriots’ scheme.
What is his special teams value? Even though Hastings joined Auburn as a kicker after having played soccer in high school, his special teams value heading into the NFL will lie elsewhere — most likely as a kickoff and punt return option. While he has no prior experience in either of those areas, his athletic skillset could lead the Patriots’ coaching staff to give him a try with neither position currently locked down.
Does he have positional versatility? Besides his kicking experience and potential upside as a returnman, Hastings also projects to fit New England’s “jack-of-all-trades” mold on the offensive side of the ball. He has the moving skills to succeed not just as a prototypical underneath receiver, but also to be used on misdirection runs such as jet-sweeps or end-arounds. Other than that, however, his versatility will depend on his strength in relation to his build: if Hastings cannot hold his ground against defensive backs, he will only see limited action from an X-alignment or as a downfield blocker in the running game.
What is his salary cap situation? After not hearing his name called during the draft, Hastings signed a standard three-year undrafted rookie deal with the Patriots to reunite him with Stidham. As part of this pact, the 23-year-old received $57,500 in guarantees — including $7,500 in the form of a signing bonus. The 2020 proration of said bonus is the only part of Hastings’ contract currently on the team’s books: under the NFL’s top-51 rule, he currently counts just $2,500 against the cap. That number will increase to $612,500 if he makes the 53-man roster in September, though.
What is his roster outlook? When Hastings joined the Patriots’ roster, he was added to a wide receiver group that may lack roster locks — only Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Matthew Slater are guaranteed spots on the team — but offers plenty of bodies competing for three to four jobs. For the ex-Tiger to earn one of them, he will have to get back to his 2017 levels of play and also build chemistry with whoever is throwing him passes while leaving his mark on special teams. If he can do that, he has a shot at making the team or at least the practice squad. If not, his tenure in New England could come to a quick end.